Most students don’t have a choice about whether to take the academic or general version of the IELTS exam. There are occasions, however, when they do. It’s usually if they are applying to emigrate and they sometimes ask me for advice. There is a perception that the general version might be easier but this is not necessarily the case.
First, it might be useful to say that the listening and speaking modules of the two versions are identical. It is only the differences in the writing and reading tests that differ.
Academic reading has three long passages with approximately thirteen questions for each. The total number of questions is always forty. The general reading paper invariably has five or six shorter passages but again with a total of forty.
The sources of the texts for both texts usually are books, magazines, newspapers and sometimes official documents. The academic version of the test is said to have texts of a more scholarly nature but I’m sure that well-educated student would perform equally well in both versions of the reading exam. You certainly don’t need any specialist knowledge for the academic version.
It is in the writing paper where, perhaps, we see the greatest differences. Both papers have two parts. The second is a short essay of 250 words and the major difference is that the topics for the academic paper are more wide-ranging. However, in reality, there are only minimal differences and a reasonably smart student would do equally well in both the academic and general versions.
It is in part one of the writing paper where we see the biggest differences. In the general version you will be asked to write a letter. It may be of a formal or semi-formal nature as if writing to an organisation or your employer. Or it might be informal as if writing to a friend. You will be given the aims of your letter and a list of what you should incorporate.
In the academic part one you are asked to analyse and describe a chart, graph, map or diagram. Some students think that this is more difficult than writing a letter but, in reality, I’m convinced that this is not true. Getting the tone of a letter is sometimes very difficult for non-native speakers and many of my students don’t get it right without tuition. Describing a report should not be daunting and, if you know what sort of format and vocabulary the examiners are looking for, is less difficult than it might seem. You certainly don’t need any specific academic knowledge.
In conclusion, if you are given the option of choosing whether or not to take the academic or general version of the IELTS exam, don’t automatically assume that the general will be easier. Look at past papers and in particular at writing part one. A well-prepared student will, I am convinced, achieve the same result in both versions.